Green Thumb: Put Up a Potager

In America, land of amber waves of grain, home vegetable gardens look like miniature farms, with row upon row of peppers, tomatoes and string beans. Everything ripens at once, and we press the excess zucchini on neighbors and friends. It’s a bountiful concept, fit for a nation with plenty of acreage.

In Europe, by contrast, the feudal system meant a peasant only had a postage-stamp-size plot outside his hovel on which to scratch out a personal garden. There wasn’t any point in growing bushels of string beans; the emphasis was on keeping something in the stockpot all year long. So these soup gardens, or potagers (“po-tah-zhay,” from the French word for soup), had quite a different look, with small beds devoted to long-keeping staples, such as onions and leeks, a succession of shorter-season crops, and herbs and flowers of both culinary and medicinal use.

Grander homes kept the substance but pumped up the size, resulting in such resplendent plots as the King’s Kitchen Garden at Versailles and the potagers at Barnsley House and Chatsworth House in England. Stateside, there’s a fine high-end soup garden nearby at Pennsbury Manor, a 1930s re-creation of William Penn’s 17th-century home along the Delaware, in Morrisville. Working from a painting of a 1698 London garden, Charlie Thomforde, Pennsbury’s historic horticulturalist, has laid out a central axis of paths divided by subpaths, and planted it with beans, squash, radishes, lettuce, carrots, and small fruiting bushes like raspberries, currants and gooseberries.

Scaled back down to the original concept, a soup garden especially is suited to today’s smaller home lots, says Jessica Constantine, greenhouse manager at Albrecht’s Garden Center in Narberth. As with any new garden, begin by testing your soil and amending it as needed. (Constantine suggests Penn State’s test kit, at $9; to order, call 814-863-0841.) Next, plot your garden on graph paper—you’ll need at least a 9-by-12-foot space. Traditionally, a soup garden is geometric and symmetrical, relying on circles, triangles, rectangles and squares laid out in patterns and separated by paths.

Main pathways should be a yard wide, and beds no more than two yards across, to allow for easy access. From the start, consider what you’ll use for those paths, which need to be constructed before you start planting. Belgian block, brick, grass, flagstone, cement steppingstones, and moss all are possibilities, says Constantine. She especially likes paths planted with thyme, which gives up its scent as the gardener walks through.

Keep symmetry in mind inside those geometric beds, too. Bet Saum, garden installer and designer of Passiflora Design Studio in Lambertville, likes to plant half a bed with purple-leaf basil and the other half with powdery-gray santolina. She also loves stripes and concentric circles. One of her favorite kitchen-garden combos has a ring of radicchio around a ring of parsley around a circle of tall, spiky onions centered with a yellow standard rose. But don’t be hampered by formality; the haphazard sprawl of watermelon vines is only more charming when set against orderly blocks and paths.

Remember to add height to the picture. Grand European manors use boxwood or privet to edge kitchen gardens. These hedges extend the growing season by buffering against the elements. You can stay true to the concept with mini hedges of lavender, sage, santolina or rosemary. Sona Hoplamazian, manager of Wedgewood Gardens Greenhouses in Glen Mills, notes that basil makes a great hedge, since it needs to be clipped anyway. Save room for a few berry shrubs or fruit trees. (You can espalier, or train fruit trees against a wall, if you’re feeling lucky.) Tomatoes, beans and peas can be raised off the ground in cages and trellises that are ornamental and practical.

A classic French potager contains chives, onions, leeks, potatoes and carrots, all of which can be grown in the Delaware Valley, with potatoes especially easy. “Just cut up and plant grocery-store potatoes, making sure each piece has an eye,” says Lorraine Kiefer, owner of Triple Oaks Nursery & Herb Garden in Franklinville, New Jersey. Her extensive home kitchen garden includes all manner of herbs as well as lettuce, kohlrabi, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, peppers, okra (“for its interesting blooms and pods”) and pole beans, which have “a certain timeless, rustic quality,” she says. Spring brings straw-berries; autumn bulges with pumpkins. Keep in mind the varying sizes and shapes of foliage and flowers when planting. “The huge leaves of squash against its gold blooms are striking,” says Kiefer.

To keep the bounty coming, consider a trick from William Penn’s era. After you’ve prepared the soil, Thomforde suggests broadcasting each mini-bed with a variety of crops that ripen in succession, such as radishes, carrots, lettuce and parsnips. You’ll start to harvest radishes within weeks, move on to lettuce and then carrots, and have parsnips for digging in the spring. “It’s fast to sow, but time-consuming to weed,” Thomforde says of such a bed. “You really have to know your weeds from your seedling plants.”

William Penn’s goal was a productive, well-ordered garden. “There’s no evidence he wanted it to be decorative,” says Thomforde, but he did want it to be presentable. Fortunately, it’s easy to meet multiple goals in a soup garden. Indulge in rainbow-hued Swiss chard, other-worldly Brussels sprouts and ferny asparagus, and don’t hesitate to toss in flower seeds. Zinnias, cosmos and snapdragons all suit the potager well. “Chive flowers are awfully pretty, too,” says Constantine. Kiefer likes to grow edible blossoms. “Anything in the viola family, marigolds, nasturtiums, sunflowers,” she says. Saum intersperses herbs with armfuls of dahlias for cutting.

Keep your soup garden flourishing with regular fertilizing. Compost works best, turning your kitchen scraps into new foodstuffs. If you can’t compost, Constantine suggests an organic supplement like Garden Tone every three months. Saum practices crop rotation in miniature, “resting” beds by planting them with barley or rye and then turning them under. If you add even a small coldframe, says Kiefer, you’ll have the pleasure of harvesting lettuce and spinach in the snow.

And if you think you haven’t got enough square footage for a soup garden, think again. Kiefer has seen such gardens planted in barrels, window boxes and even, enterprisingly, in a pair of antique claw-foot tubs in a front yard in New Orleans. A city plot, however small, should be no problem.